In recent years, contemporary society – and so too the art world – has experienced a return to spirituality. Previously seen as a negative aspect of the eroticised ‘other’, this growing acceptance of mysticism and ritual, in combination with our secular malaise, is reclaiming and reimagining the everyday. NETHERWORLDS at Melbourne’s SEVENTH Gallery brings forth the underworld, claiming the gallery as a sanctuary: a place of peace and contemplation for practices perceived as maligned, perverse or otherwise ill-defined.
The exhibition features the work of six artists, all of whom could be considered ‘outsiders’. Many of the works embody histories of accusation and exclusion but also of acceptance and transformation, contributing to a sense of thresholds being enforced and transgressed. Running across the length of the gallery wall, Chantal Fraser’s line of lurid masks, #traditional #blurred lines (2013-17), combine her Samoan heritage with contemporary references to pop culture. Invoking rituals of adornment, the masks act as a point of connection and a marker of identity.
A book lies suspended mid-air by a length of chain. It contains Gate, Group, Road, Sigil and Collages (2012-2016) by Clay Kerrigan. Meditations on queerness, spirituality and contemporary culture are combined with a series of webcam photographs documenting the spiritual and artistic process to craft a visceral expression of queer spirituality. Similarly, Blake Lawrence’s Big Shroud (2016) serves as a document of both the artistic and ritualistic process. In this instance, the subject of the photograph is rendered unknown, all identifying features are kept hidden behind a veil of blue fabric.
Drawing upon the language of BDSM and fetishism, Anastasia Booth’s Portrait series presents three rituals of female sexual empowerment. In Portrait of Artemis (2016) the encounter with the female body is alluring, and at the same time sexually defiant. Dressed in leather and wielding an oversized phallus, the archetypal ‘woman in waiting’ is now a warrior.
In a work suggestive of both a sacrificial altar and a funeral pyre, Lustration (2017) by Naomi Blacklock, fills the gallery with the unnerving sound of the artist’s heavy breadth and howling screams. At the same time – from within the mound of firewood – a pool of water froths and bubbles with an intensity equal to the violence of the sound. Like Booth’s Portrait series, Blacklock reclaims and reimagines a history of female sexuality. By enacting rituals of female self-empowerment, both artists disrupt the historical tendency to view female eroticism as grotesque or submissive, and in doing so re-inscribe the awe-inspiring power of these (hidden) mythologised women.
Fortunes of the Forest (2017) by Caitlin Franzmann is the work which perhaps best examines the relationship between contemporary art and spirituality. Utilising the ritualised practice of divination, Franzmann invites you to perform a reading with divination cards, borne from her observations of the Karawatha Forest and its systems. However, in a ritual designed to connect us with an earthly ancient knowledge, the work suffers from the absence of Franzmann as a spiritual guide. By placing the responsibility to divine such knowledge solely in the hands of the viewer, Fortunes of the Forest lacks the social aspect inherent to this form of divination.
Despite the exhibition’s treatment of spirituality, magic and witchcraft as terms which are vastly interchangeable, NETHERWORLDS is careful never to imply that people’s experience of spirituality is homogenous. Reflecting upon the relationship between art, spirituality and outsiders, the act of entering a gallery is often cited as a religious experience. Occupying both religious and art spaces is accompanied by their own, unique set of rituals. By bringing their distinct experiences into this sacred setting, each artist is successful in their attempt to craft new rituals for queer and feminist communities within the context of art. In doing so, they open up new possibilities for contemporary society, implicating the viewer within their journey.
Rachel Ciesla is a curator and creative producer from Perth currently based in Melbourne. She has worked in the contemporary arts sector across a variety of curatorial, marketing and administrative roles. With an interest in critically-engaged practices that address issues of identity and community. Rachel is undertaking a MA Curatorship at the University of Melbourne and holds a BA in Art History from the University of Western Australia.
NETHERWORLDS was presented at SEVENTH Gallery between 7 – 22 December 2017. Previous iterations of this project have been shown at Firstdraft, Sydney (5-29 October 2016) and The Walls, Gold Coast (5-19 August 2017).